COLUMN: To Be Poor, Black and Jailed

Why criminal justice reform has emerged as a hot topic.

December 4, 2015, 6:08 PM
PHOTO: Metal handcuffs.
An undated stock photo of handcuffs.
STOCK/Getty Images

— -- "That's white privilege for ya."

With that one sentence in a Facebook post, actor Matt McGorry started a thoughtful conversation about race by first admitting his own ignorance. It was the kind of self-depreciating admission that has become par for the course for those who follow the "How to Get Away With Murder" and "Orange Is the New Black" star on social media. Still, his timing could not be better.

Criminal justice reform has emerged as the one topic politicians and thought-leaders on both sides of the aisle appear ready to move on. This week, President Obama met with a bipartisan group from Congress to further his push for reform that really began last fall with the formation of a commission on policing. This recent meeting occurred the same day the White House held a symposium on poverty's impact on the incarceration rate, which featured among the many speakers: president of Americans for Tax Reform and noted Obama critic, Grover Norquist.

"We need to take the incentives away from the government to have the number of fines and tickets and penalties for being late," Norquist said. "There is profiting (from the criminal justice system) going on, most of it done through the government and the government can stop it tomorrow by rethinking how many people have to be in prison (and) for how long."

From Black Lives Matter activists meeting with Hillary Clinton to Sen. Rand Paul harping on militarized police, even some who want to be president are looking for ways to address the issue, though they all may not be doing so for purely altruistic reasons. But be not mistaken, no matter the angle of the rhetoric taken by politicians, this is a matter of race. Which is why McGorry's Facebook post was so poignant.

Holding a copy of Michelle Alexander's best-seller, "The New Jim Crow" -- a scathing analysis of the racial impact the criminal justice system has on society -- McGorry wrote "Burning crosses and racial slurs are not the only types of racism affecting people of color."

Consider this: During the height of the recession, 33 states cut education spending but increased the amount allocated for jails. I repeat: As hundreds of thousands of Americans were losing their jobs each month, many of the country's leaders opted to fatten the prison system and put education -- the one thing that helps keep people out of jail -- on a diet.

It seems counter-intuitive until you read something like the Department of Justice's report on Ferguson and stumble across this email: "Court fees are anticipated to rise about 7.5%. I did ask the Chief if he thought the PD could deliver 10% increase. He indicated they could try."

That was the city's financial director speaking with the city manager back in 2013. This year, Ferguson officials were trying to pull in more than 20 percent of its operating budget from fines and fees. As disturbing as that is, the small, predominantly black Missouri town is not alone in preying on its most vulnerable to make ends meet. And it's not just through parking tickets. Add-ons such as late payments, failure-to-pay fines, court appearance charges and processing fees are just a few of the fines and fees that have steadily increased nationwide over the past 20 years, according to a study by researchers at the University of Washington.

Some municipalities charge interest. Some even have the nerve to charge those in jail for room and board.

What does all of this eventually look like? Well in 2011, more than 20 percent of the people living in Philadelphia received a bill for their unpaid fees and fines. The median owed was $4,500. In a city with a 26 percent poverty rate, sending that bill out should be a criminal offense. Sending that bill out in a city that is 44 percent black -- in a country where blacks are twice as likely as their white counterparts to be living in poverty -- and you begin to see what McGorry recently learned: This ish ain't right.

"What is the price of justice?” Attorney General Loretta Lynch recently asked a crowd before answering her own question: "Justice isn't a commodity to be purchased, it is a right."

Unfortunately, for too many Americans -- particularly minorities -- that isn't close to being the truth, something Lynch knows all too well. In New York City, where she was a U.S. Attorney, only 21 percent of those arrested made bail for $500 or less in 2010. That may not seem like a lot of money to some, but for a poor person that's the difference between getting out of jail or paying rent. This dynamic partly explains why over the past 18 years, the number of un-convicted jail inmates grew by 59 percent. Millions stuck in jail not because they are dangerous or because they are a flight risk -- which is the purpose of bail -- but simply because they are poor.

The next time someone brings up the number of black men in prison, ask them if they have the stomach to talk about why. Ask them if they're interested in reforming a system where an unpaid parking ticket balloons to an arrest, which can lead to an extended stay in jail because of an inability to post bail, which can lead to job loss.

The protestors you see on TV demanding reform? They are not the cancer. They are doctors delivering the diagnosis.

The cancer is an $80 billion criminal justice system that makes up funding shortfalls by preying on the poor, most of them minorities. If you have any interest in understanding that complexity, join McGorry's book club.

Editor's note: The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author.